Tian Wenhua, former board chairwoman and general manager of Sanlu Group Co., and three other top executives who also went on trial Wednesday could face the death penalty if convicted.
The high-profile trials and the release of details in a 1.1 billion yuan ($160 million) compensation plan signal that authorities hope to end what was widely seen as a national disgrace, highlighting widespread food safety problems and corporate and official malfeasance.
Infant formula contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine has been blamed for the deaths of at least six children and sickening nearly 300,000 others.
Authorities say milk suppliers mixed the nitrogen-rich powder into raw milk in order to fool quality tests for protein. When ingested in larger amounts, melamine can cause kidney stones and kidney failure.
It was not known how long the trials at the Shijiazhuang Intermediate People's Court in northern China would last or when the verdicts would be announced.
Seventeen others have gone on trial over past few days with at least four facing the death penalty, Xinhua has said. The defendants included people accused of producing melamine and marketing it to milk producers, as well as milk collectors who mixed the chemical into raw milk sold to major dairies.
But the court cases offer little consolation to some parents who felt the government breached their trust after their children died or were sickened from milk powder certified by authorities as safe.
Some families have said the planned payout by dairies was too low, and their lawyers pledged to continue attempts to sue for more compensation.
"If they offered me compensation, I won't accept, because what do I need this money for since my son is gone," said Tian Xiaowei, an apple farmer and part-time truck driver, whose year-old child Tian Jin died in August from what he said was drinking melamine-tainted milk powder.
"These people are making a profit by letting people die," Tian said in a telephone interview from his home in central Shaanxi province. "If the information was made public earlier, I would not have let my son drink Sanlu powder and he wouldn't have died."
Tian could receive 200,000 yuan ($29,000) in compensation for the death of his child, according to details of the payout plan reported Tuesday by the China Daily, an official newspaper. It was not clear, however, if Tian would receive any money because authorities have yet to include his son's death in the official tally, even though tests on milk powder the boy was drinking showed high levels of melamine.
Children who suffered kidney stones would get 2,000 yuan ($290) while sicker children would be paid 30,000 yuan ($4,380), the paper said. The one-time cash payments total 900 million yuan ($131 million), while another 200 million yuan ($29 million) will go to a fund set up to cover bills for lingering health problems.
But parents who received copies of the agreement considered the offer of 2,000 yuan to be woefully inadequate, said Beijing attorney Xu Zhiyong, who is part of a legal team representing 63 families.
"I advised them not to sign it for the time being, as we would demand trials of those 22 dairy companies," said Xu, whose attempts to sue the companies involved have so far been rejected by the courts. "The compensation is too low and no victims were involved in the decision-making process."